Did you watch Reporting Scotland on Tuesday night? Its headline story was about Labour councils attacking the Scottish government over council funding and the council tax freeze.
It was a continuation from BBC Scotland’s radio coverage throughout the day.
The coverage started on Good Morning Scotland with the now familiar news bulletins looping every half hour.
It continued into the early evening when Newsdrive picked it up.
The story has of course been running for weeks and is a central theme of the Scottish Labour election campaign. There are essentially three strands to the narrative.
1. The SNP is slashing council funding.
2. The council tax freeze prevents councils making up the shortfall.
3. There will be cuts to local services and job losses.
That’s really all there is. Below is the how Reporting Scotland presented the issue.
The news report was little more than a continuation of the noise from Scottish Labour politicians who had peppered BBC Scotland’s news throughout the day. An SNP representative responded, but Marco Biagi wasn't setting the agenda, he was responding to it.
Stuck in the middle of the item was an academic who appeared to back the Scottish Labour politicians’ comments on local government funding. The academic’s name is Professor Richard Kerley. I’ve edited the clip to highlight his input.
Professor Kerley had a busy day on Tuesday. He was interviewed on Good Morning Scotland [GMS] earlier. GMS Presenter Hailey Millar described him as an "expert on public sector funding". You can hear his interview below.
The academic also popped up that evening on Newsdrive where he was again interviewed, this time by Ken MacDonald. You can hear the interview below.
As you can see, Professor Kerley was presented by BBC Scotland as the impartial academic shedding light on the darkness of political debate. He’s a professor, so viewers would automatically assume he had no political axe to grind. But would they have been correct in their assumption?
What BBC Scotland failed to tell viewers was that Richard Kerley was a former Labour councillor. He was an Edinburgh councillor for eight years. Following his term as a Labour councillor, Richard Kerley enjoyed a stint as chair of a working group set up in 2000 by the then Labour led Scottish Executive.
His Renewing Local Democracy Working Party was responsible for introducing the single transferable vote system into local elections. It's fair to say that Richard Kerley has held fairly strong opinions on local government for some considerable time.
In its submission to the Commisison on Local Tax Reform last June, the Centre for Scottish Public Policy which is chaired by Professor Kerley, said of the council tax freeze:
The standstill on council tax levels is regressive, not providing material advantage to the lowest income households, and also infantilises local authorities and those who elect them by denying them options of specifically increasing local taxes to support proposed initiatives and expenditure.
It's probably fair to say that Professor Kerley is not a fan of the council tax freeze. Neutral on the issue he is not.
Now I’m not suggesting for a minute that Professor Kerley’s views on local authority funding are coloured by his links to the Labour party. Perish the thought. But don’t you think it would have been better for the BBC to at least have informed viewers of his links to the party that was attacking the SNP? Then at least viewers could have formed their own view.
But the BBC didn't. Instead, like the recent reporting of the Resolution Foundation 'report', another individual with links to Labour was presented as apolitical.
There was something else niggling me over BBC Scotland’s coverage of the issue. Where was Scotland’s largest local authority?
In years gone by Labour controlled Glasgow council was the lynchpin of Labour attacks on the SNP over the issue of the council tax freeze and funding. Former leader Gordon Matheson could always be relied upon to provide a soundbite for BBC Scotland news.
But Glasgow council was nowhere to be seen. The answer to the conundrum was that Matheson and Scottish Labour performed a massive U-turn in 2012 when they pledged to freeze council tax for not four years as the SNP were already committed to, but five years.
Current leader of Glasgow Council, Labour councillor Frank McAveety did make a cameo appearance on Newsdrive, but sadly wasn’t asked about his party’s five year freeze pledge.
If Labour councillors are to be broadcast attacking the council tax freeze then why aren’t Scottish Labour leaders asked to explain the party’s support for the freeze? The Scottish Labour party has boasted of its support for the council tax freeze in Holyrood by-elections. Yet these highly relevant facts are always missing from BBC Scotland news reports.
Back to the Future
The council tax freeze issue and Labour hypocritical squeals is an old story. Indeed Tuesday’s reworking of it by BBC Scotland was almost identical to one the broadcaster ran almost exactly two years ago. That too coincided with the timing of local authority budgets and featured the same actors.
Take a look at the video clip below.
It could be broadcast now and people wouldn’t notice. It’s an almost identical template to the one adopted by BBC Scotland on Tuesday. Labour councillors and Cosla officials are at the centre of the attacks on the council tax freeze. The head of Cosla, David O’Neil, is not identified as a Labour councillor.
The 2014 item followed a press release from a body that had been set up by Cosla to look at council funding. The group, which called itself the Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy, was chaired by the same Labour councillor David O’Neil.
Here he is in April 2014 in a promo video for the group.
The Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy sprang into life on October 7th 2013 during the independence referendum campaign. It was officially set up in order to look at how councils and local services might evolve in Scotland. Its emergence coincided with attempts by Unionists to try to divert from the independence debate by arguing that more powers should be devolved by Holyrood to Scottish local authorities.
The Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy included one SNP and one Scottish Green councillor in its twenty members, together with a few individuals who were not apparently aligned to any party. However, of those whose constitutional stance was known, pro-independence members were heavily outnumbered by Unionists.
The Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy boasted a total of seven former or current pro-Union politicians, including Labour’s Glasgow Council leader Gordon Matheson and the former Labour leader of Edinburgh council, the Rev. Ewan Aitken. Professor Richard Kerley was one of the members.
Also on the group were journalists Alf Young and Alan Rennie. Young was a former Labour party researcher whilst Rennie was the Editor in Chief of the pro-Labour Daily Record and Sunday Mail. Others on the group included Geoff Mawdsley, from the Reform Scotland think-tank which opposes independence, and Pam Duncan, a member of Scottish Labour’s Social Justice Sounding Board who appeared on Radio Scotland regularly during the referendum on behalf of the pro-Union Better Together campaign.
The Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy had a built in pro-Union bias from the beginning. Not surprisingly, its first report in January 2014 attacked the council tax freeze by suggesting most people were willing to pay more to protect local services.
A poll carried out on behalf of the group dominated Scottish news when released. It led to the Reporting Scotland news item you saw above. But the poll was unreliable. Participants had been conditioned by several leading questions before they were asked the question that was being hailed by opponents of the council tax freeze.
People were asked to gauge their level of agreement with the following question:
I would be willing to pay more council tax if I was certain the money raised was spent on local services such as schools and care for older people.
Not surprisingly, a huge majority said they agreed with the proposal. Who wouldn't? The question was so loaded it was worthless.
Strangely a second question, which returned a small majority in agreement, didn't receive quite the same level of coverage.
I think councils have enough money to deliver the services my community needs.
The poll set the news agenda for that day and many following. It was used by Unionists to attack the SNP and to portray them as a centralising party which was stifling local democracy.
I’ve been tracking BBC Scotland’s recent coverage of the council funding issue, and it’s been as expected - highly questionable. Selective reporting, a refusal to pursue Scottish Labour and a willingness to contrive a situation to help a narrative has corrupted the coverage.
As an example of the manipulation, take Moray council. Towards the end of last month BBC Scotland ran a story claiming Moray council was planning to end the council tax freeze. Over the course of two days the threat grew arms and legs. There were claims the council’s ruling administration was seriously considering increasing council tax by eighteen per cent.
The story was incredible. It lent itself to subsequent claims, repeated on Tuesday, that Moray had backed down only after threats of punitive action from the Scottish government should it end the freeze.
It was also complete and utter drivel. There was no support for such an increase amongst Moray councillors. Had it gone to a vote it would have been voted down.
This was made abundantly clear on the morning of January 14th when one of the Conservative councillors for Moray appeared on Good Morning Scotland. A short clip from the interview can be heard below.
One of the main complaints from Labour run local authorities relates to the aforementioned penalty should they refuse to freeze council tax. It has been reported that this penalty has now increased from previous years. But there has been no explanation for the increase.
Not reported to any great extent is why there is a penalty increase. The Scottish Government has decided to ring-fence some of the cash it awards councils to maintain the council tax freeze. This cash - £88m - is specifically to ensure teacher numbers are maintained at 2015 levels.
The biggest culprits when it comes to falling teacher numbers are Labour controlled local authorities. Ironically, the biggest critic when teacher numbers fall, is the Scottish Labour party. Scottish Labour has used a situation they themselves are mostly responsible for in order to imply the fault lies with the Scottish government.
The SNP has now, at a stroke, prevented Scottish Labour and its local authority side-kicks from playing politics with teacher numbers. And boy, do they not like it.
The £88m for teachers is in addition to £250m, which is new money for health and social care and £70m to continue the council tax freeze. The funding package is by no means generous, but considering the savage cuts councils south of the border have had to endure, and the cuts to Scotland's block grant then the SNP has performed a minor miracle.
The council funding tale will be told again before the Holyrood elections - it'll appear on BBC TV, Radio and Online. Scottish Labour and its media allies are pinning their hopes on persuading Scottish voters that the Nats, and not the Tories, are the real villains when it come to cuts.
Sadly [for Scottish Labour], going by the poll results released by Ipsos Mori, the public isn't buying it.
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